Chris Lambert, Archivist
Our theme this month is toys – but of a grown up kind. This bill is one of thousands in the Audley End estate archive. General Sir John Griffin Griffin, later to become the 1st Baron Braybrooke, had inherited the estate from his aunt in 1762, and seems to have been spending fairly freely.
These purchases from Francis Watkins, a London instrument maker, put Sir John squarely in tune with the fashionable pleasures of the age – but pleasures that were linked to serious technological innovation. Founded in the 1740s, the Watkins firm survived to be taken over in the 1850s by its younger rival Elliot Brothers. In the 1960s Elliot’s, early manufacturers of electrical equipment and then of computers, became in turn one of the component parts of GEC Marconi. The connection between optics and electrics was evident even at the time of this bill: amongst the ’optical, philosophical, and mathematical instruments’ available from Watkins were ‘electrical machines’.
So far as Sir John’s own purchases are concerned, a ‘concave to opera glass’ is probably a replacement lens, although it is interesting that Watkins was advertising ‘an opera-glass entirely new’. For outdoor amusement, perhaps on the private bowling green behind Audley End house, we have 6 pairs of bowls with a jack, apparently bought in from another supplier. A ‘book camara’ seems an unexpected purchase for the 1760s, but in fact cameras were well-developed by the late 18th century. How to fix the images that they produced was unknown, but the principles of focusing light on to a screen were well understood, and a wide variety of cameras was available. Probably Sir John’s purchase was a camera in the form of a book, opening to display an image to the (hopefully) delighted viewer.
Less of a toy was the most expensive item, a 6-guinea mahogany measuring wheel. Sir John may have led a life of luxury, but he was also interested in the land that supported it. He spent many years re-assembling the Audley End estate, which had been split three ways on the death of the 10th Earl of Suffolk in 1745. For a serious landowner, estate management involved estate measurement, and it is likely that the measuring wheel was a means to that end.
Bills like this show vividly how many human activities – serious and frivolous – are united through the making of tools. But we came across this one only because we were looking for something else in the bundle. Serendipity is one of the great pleasures of an archive, and not to be had from a search engine. Why not try it yourself?